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Garden Q&A: On managing poke weed and snakes

Poke weed, which reaches 3 to 8 feet tall, with red stems and lustrous purple berries, is toxic unless properly prepared.
Poke weed, which reaches 3 to 8 feet tall, with red stems and lustrous purple berries, is toxic unless properly prepared. (Ellen Nibali/For The Baltimore Sun)

What is this plant? We seem to have it in all stages, coming up in beds around the yard.

Poke weed, the native plant that inspired the song Poke Salad Annie, can be edible to humans, however, all parts are toxic. Unless cooked knowledgeably, it as an edible best left to the birds and wildlife that relish it.

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Reaching 3 to 8 feet tall, with red stems and lustrous purple berries in fall, poke weed can be quite attractive. Leaves have a sheen, which helps identify the many volunteer seedlings that pop up, thanks to the birds.

To hand pull small plants, grasp at the soil line when soil is moist, or else the top growth will snap off in your hand, leaving the root. This is a perennial plant. With a few years under its belt, the taproot expands into an impressive tuber that needs to be dug out. Be strategic about which pokeweed you leave (natural areas) and which you remove (garden beds).

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It is toxic to horses and cattle. Berries can be used for ink or dye.

A small snake got under our basement washing machine. How can I trap and remove it? It could be a garter snake. It’s about the width of a pencil and a foot long.

An effective technique is to lay damp towels on the floor overnight. Snakes come out of hiding at night and often will crawl under damp towels. In the morning, shove the towel into a flat sided trash can. The captured snake can then be released outdoors.

Snakes occasionally wander indoors but can’t survive there. Prevent this from occurring by caulking small openings around the house, especially around windows and doors. To discourage snakes from living close to your house, remove stacks of firewood, leaves or other debris near the home. Snakes like to hide in dense vegetation and debris and it will attract other critters, too.

There are more management ideas on the Home and Garden Information Center website. Just search ‘snakes.’

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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